RTA seeing booming air service at GUC for immediate future

More and more seats coming to the local airport

[ by Mark Reaman ]

The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) feels the local airport is on the brink of moving to the next level of service and there is momentum to provide year-round flights out of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC). More airline seats are being added for the busy times and the RTA’s air consultant feels there has been a shift in demographics with more full-time residents moving to the area and using the airport.

“We remain extremely bullish on the Gunnison airport,” said Kent Myers of Airplanners LLC., the company that advises the RTA air program. “All resort communities have changed as a result of the pandemic and Gunnison and Crested Butte is no exception. There is opportunity here to change the air service. There are more people living here and more people taking business flights. Plus there are more tourists using the flights to get here. These are fundamental changes. People now want the lifestyle and that includes regular air service.”

Myers consults for several resort communities and he said people have discovered they can live in really nice places and run their companies from a resort community. “There is a balance between new full-time residents and tourists but full-timers are buying more tickets these days,”he said.

RTA special projects manager Leia Morrison also works the United counter at GUC and she said she is definitely seeing more local “regulars” use the airport. She said like in so many situations, the staffing at the airport is short and that was becoming an issue. “We are definitely seeing a lot of the same people come through regularly,” she said. “They live in the valley now. There is more stress on staff but we are trying to make it work.”

“The increase in private jets being used here is also noticeable,” added GUC airport manager Rick Lamport. “And that includes both private jets and those being chartered.”

“We’re not alone,” added RTA executive director Scott Truex. “All resort communities seem to be having the same experience.”
“It will be interesting to see what happens as a result of this demographic shift,” said Myers.

Both summer and winter increasing
Myers reported that summer air service is up significantly in 2021 over last year. He said overall, the passenger count is up 16 percent while the Denver flights are showing a whopping 37 percent increase. That amounts to about 1,500 more passengers that have used GUC already this summer.

He said the Houston flight service has been spotty in part because of the plane that United was using did not perform well at Gunnison’s altitude when it was warm. The outbound flights required less weight in the daytime and that resulted in some people being bumped despite open seats on the plane.

Morrison said that was never a pleasant experience for people working the counter.

“United is onboard with the problem now and it’s corrected for the most part as summer winds down,” Myers said. “But United’s presence in Denver is growing massively and that will continue to help Gunnison. They are looking very favorably at Gunnison these days.” He also said the subcontractor used by United for Gunnison, Commute Air, got its “hand slapped” for its poor early summer performance and many cancelled flights. “They are doing much better,” he reported.

As for the coming winter, Myers reminded the board that they have increased the number of seats flying into GUC by about 50 percent, from approximately 30,000 in the ski season to 45,000.

“That is huge,” Myers said. “That will be a challenge but the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership and John Norton are meeting with Vail Resorts to see how they can coordinate to help fill those winter seats.”

“It is a huge opportunity for all of us,” said Truex. “It should be a great schedule with great connectivity. I would also expect good fares given the competition but who knows.”

“We really need to fill those seats,” said RTA chairperson Janet Farmer.

“United will be good and American Airlines is coming in with an aggressive schedule,” said Myers. “Gunnison will be set up well if it can perform and fill the seats. If we get over the hump we have a great opportunity here.”

Myers also said the summer of 2022 could see a new summer flight coming regularly out of Dallas thanks to a federal start-up grant.
Lamport noted many things were coming together at once between the increase in seats, the competition between United and American and the renovation of the GUC terminal. “At the end of the day what we spend on airline caps and guarantees are worth it,” he said. “The latest economic study shows that $121 million in economic benefit goes to the entire community directly from the airport.”

“There is no doubt we have the opportunity to take this air program to the next level,” said Myers who noted GUC is no longer at the bottom of the list with several smaller airports attracting air service. “We can get to a year-round program. We need to fill those additional seats. I think the community wants that type of year-round service out of both Denver and Dallas. Wouldn’t that be great?”

“The question now is whether this is a bump or a permanent move because people are ready to travel after the pandemic year,” said RTA board member Liz Smith.

“I think it’s a fundamental change to the community with a couple hundred new people staying in the community and using the air service,” said Myers.

RTA board member Jim Schmidt noted that Aspen was seeing a trend where about half its visitors were not vaccinated against the coronavirus. He assumed that was happening at GUC as well. “That is scary for the future. Is there a time when we stop the flights coming from Texas?”

Board member Boe Freeburn asked if increasing the number of people flying into the valley was a strategically good idea. “My concern is the service challenge we are seeing across the valley,” he said. “Is it a good experience we are providing with the worker shortage and the need for housing? It’s a bit off tangent but do we have the workforce to service all of these new people?”

Myers said he felt there would be a bump in the workforce when unemployment benefits expired in September. Smith said it seemed like a lot of service industry workers shifted to higher paying jobs in construction.

Myers also pointed out there was a pilot shortage in the industry and while airlines planned to recruit new people for those positions it could be a while before the right balance was struck.

“Right now, how we perform this winter with those extra seats will determine our momentum,” concluded Truex. “If we don’t do well we will probably go back to the way it was with fewer seats and fewer flights.”

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